The National-led Government has made a third medical school at Waikato University a priority. But the Act Party has created a new hurdle for the $380m project.
The University of Waikato is confident that its plans for a medical school will not be derailed by an Act party request for a new business case.
A spokesman for Act leader David Seymour said he had no further comment beyond the coalition deal.
Asked whether this requirement would halt a new medical school, Health Minister Shane Reti said the cost-benefit analysis was a “very reasonable” request for any major project. He said this process began last week.
“This is taxpayer money we’re talking about so it’s not at all unreasonable, in fact it’s essential, to have an effective, up-to-date business case,” he said.
Reti said the medical school was an “absolute priority” for the new Government. It will sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Waikato University to progress the graduate-entry medical school within its first 100 days.
National’s proposal is for the rurally focused school to open in 2027, taking 120 students a year with any type of undergraduate degree. The existing schools in Auckland and Dunedin would also increase places by 50 a year, raising graduate numbers by 220 a year overall.
It estimated the cost of the medical school at $380 million, of which the Crown will cover $280m.
Vice-chancellor Professor Neil Quigley said the request for further analysis of another medical school was “not unexpected” because costs had risen since a 2016 business case.
He said the commitment to the medical school in the Government’s 100-day plan was “extremely encouraging”.
Asked how the university would fundraise its $100m contribution, he said it had paired with community foundation Momentum Waikato to raise the money over 10 years.
Labour Party, unions, and former advisor sceptical about costs
The previous Labour Government’s preference was to train more doctors by using existing medical schools in Auckland and Dunedin. Health spokeswoman Ayesha Verrall said this was the fastest and most cost-effective way to lift doctor numbers.
“Creating a new medical school requires more lecturers and facilities that are already at those existing medical schools.
“There are a huge number of professions that feed into the training of doctors — anatomy, behavioural science, Maori health, neuroscience, you can probably get 40 on that list. It’s intensive and therefore expensive.”
The Tertiary Education Union’s Waikato University organiser, Shane Vugler, said everyone agreed that New Zealand needed more doctors but the financial case for a third medical school “did not stack up”.
“We’re a small university. We don’t have significant science or health science capacity so we have real questions about whether we’ve got the infrastructure to support a medical school here too.”
The university had run deficits four years in a row and Vugler said he was sceptical about whether it could raise $100m in donations.
He was also concerned about the process which led to National committing $280m of government money to the project, saying Reti and the university’s vice-chancellor had worked intimately on National’s policy.
According to emails released to RNZ, members of the National Party caucus expressed doubts to Reti about the costs of the third medical school before the policy was announced.
The policy had similar estimated costs to a 2016/17 proposal, despite inflation and the new plan catering for twice as many students.
The previous National Government sought bids for a rural-focused medical school in 2016. The Labour-led Government scrapped the idea in 2018 and later developed plans for a rural training hub.
A former executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, Ian Powell, who was on a committee which considered the 2016 proposal, said he did not believe the idea for a new medical school had been properly tested.
He said there were several issues which needed analysing, including whether New Zealand could support a rural-only medical school and where Waikato graduates would be placed for training.
“There is a drilling down to do which has not been done previously, and seems to be more driven by aspiration.”
Isaac Davison is an Auckland-based reporter who covers health issues. He joined the Herald in 2008 and has previously covered the environment, politics, and social issues.